Karl Young -- Cynthia Goodman, "Digital Visions"

Digital Vision; Computers and Art
By Cynthia Goodman.

Harry N. Abrams; September, 1987
Paper, 192 pp, $19.95

Essay by Karl Young

The partnership between computers and the visual arts is now at a singular point in its development, emerging from a state of infancy into a first level of maturity. Many artists have used the new technology to enhance or facilitate work on lines established by other media, primarily paint and photographic film. Many are working away from these preexisting genres into modes that could only be created with computers. Though it's always fun to speculate, it's impossible to say with even a slight bit of certainty what this new alliance between art and technics may bring. We may see massive changes in all the arts, perhaps coming on us so rapidly that we won't know what hit us. Perhaps the alliance will result primarily in techniques that will allow artists to do what they'd be doing anyway, but with greater ease and speed. We may see bio chips and neural interfaces allowing us to experience all art simultaneously and internally, and take it from there to wherever our own personal capabilities allow. Or maybe we'll just see a few good pieces and some snappier special effects in the movies. Whatever the case, a lot is going on right now, and it would be a shame to miss out on the marvelous advent of computer art - this coming of age will not happen again.

Cynthia Goodman's Digital Visions is an excellent survey of the state of the art at the time of publication. Despite the rapid changes in computer technology, this book will probably be the best survey available for several years and remain a landmark after it has been superseded. The book includes about 150 samples of computer related art, reproduced as well as images often meant to be seen on a different scale or in a different context or illuminated from behind can be printed in an affordable edition. Goodman's commentary is just what a survey should be: descriptive, impersonal, nonjudgemental and pluralistic. Her documentation is sufficiently detailed in her listing of hardware and software used in samples to satisfy those who are knowledgeable, but her commentaries are free from the technical argot that would make it difficult reading for those unfamiliar with computers.

One of the fascinating phenomena of the present state of the alliance is the way that computers can be used to make standard functions easier and quicker. Using a keyboard or any one of a number of input devices, including light pens that can be used directly on a computer terminal, an artist can create a basic design, save the original on a magnetic disk, and then rework it, changing existing forms, adding new ones, deleting others, and shifting color around. If one color doesn't work, it can be dropped and substituted by another by pressing a few keys. At the present state of the art, this need not produce the clunky images and lifeless colors often associated with computers — resolutions so fine that disjunctions are imperceptible to the human eye allow a delicacy of shading fully comparable with anything a brush can achieve; and with a palette of some sixteen million colors (about all a human eye can discern) available on some of the most powerful units, it could be argued that computers offer more color options than any other medium. At present, some artists use this sort of technique as a means of making sketches for work to be completed in other media. Others print out their work directly from the images composed on their computer monitors.

In many cases the results are so much like easel paintings or photographs that the use of the computer seems comic, a great hooplah made over nothing. Used in this mimetic way, the value of computers can only be assessed by the artists using them. With the advent of inexpensive micro-computers we can assume that more artists will try these convenience functions and accept or reject them. If this usage becomes common practice, it probably won't make much difference to viewers - it will simply become part of the professional bag of tricks. The majority of the works in Goodman's book use techniques of this sort. Whether the works are interesting or not, the many elaborate techniques are fascinating and, again, now is the time to be enthralled by them - the magic won't last.

Emerging from these convenience functions are some interesting shifts that move away from computer assistance to possibilities unattainable with traditional techniques. Perhaps the most promising is a shift from printing out the final work to creating art meant to be seen on computer terminals or other illuminated devices. These works, seen by radiant rather than reflected light may be the stained glass windows of a future age.

Among the artists who've gone beyond the level of simple convenience, I'd like to bring special attention to two who represent computer art's first level of maturity. Their work goes in different directions, suggesting the versatility of computer usage. In both we see a strong basis in techniques and aesthetics that have nothing to do with computers, and at the same time move the state of computer art beyond simple housekeeping.

Manfred Mohr has for some fifteen years been exploring the possibilities of restructuring the twelve sides of the most basic of forms, the cube, in two dimensional, black and white images. Mohr begins by designing a non-visual program based on algorithms (calculations with cyclic regularities) which are transformed into signs by the computer. Mohr then reworks the signs to his satisfaction and has a plotter (a computer driven drawing device) produce the final image on canvas or paper. The result is a large opus of dynamic images and sequences that can be read as narrative or analyzed by semiotic method. Both the program and the plotter put some distance between Mohr and the finished work, allowing geometry, mathematics, and chance to play an independent role in the work, and minimizing personal or idiosyncratic elements. Mohr's art seems to have raised Constructivism to a level unattainable by his predecessors, Malevich and Mondrian.

Harold Cohen has designed an artificial intelligence program called AARON and he has been able to teach this program to draw clearly legible human figures, plant forms, and other objects, as well as clearly conceived abstractions. AARON produces lively, fluid, energetic drawings with much of the expressiveness you would expect from an artist coming out of a tradition that emphasizes human individualism and prizes natural mysticism. The program has a capacity to learn, it is not simply repeating preexisting drawings but making drawings that could not have been anticipated by Cohen when he wrote or refined the program. Cohen's interactions with AARON occur on several levels: he refines his program as he goes along, taking cues and challenges from what the program has accomplished. AARON is limited to monochrome productions and Cohen often radically alters the program's drawings by adding color. The artificial intelligence of this program is a far cry from the advanced sort of A.I. that technocrats and sci fi buffs forecast, but here we have the first real example of man and computer communicating and interacting constructively, producing art that goes beyond simple mechanical gimicry.

Conventional wisdom has it that computers are inherently dehumanizing devices, the product of mad scientists working in isolation, unaware that their machines are foisting their alienation and solipsism on everyone else. That's more a product of the movies than of computers. Though a new generation of artists turned hackers and scientists turned artist is now emerging, most computer artists have had to form alliances with the scientists who are often perceived as their polar opposites in temperament and personality - and often enough both have had to use equipment owned by great corporate beasts like IBM, Phillips and the pentagon. This collaboration sometimes functions on an intimate level: many computer art producers are married couples or lovers working in tandem, as often as not initially brought together by their need to share skills. (Maybe we could think of this as a form of computer dating that actually works!) Among producers, the computer has encouraged community rather than alienation, perhaps beginning to exorcise the "two cultures" boogie man still seen by many as part of our collective schizophrenia.

Perhaps participatory works will also bring viewers together and encourage community. In popular culture, their cognates are already doing so - how many kids have met each other for the first time in video arcades since you started reading this article? On the level of self conscious art, computers tend to encourage participatory work, and it's my hunch that computer art will most distinguish itself in this area. A few of the many examples in Goodman's book illustrate directions in which this trend is going.

Wen-Ying Tsai's compositions of moving fiberglass rods illuminated by strobes are simple and elegant examples. Audio feedback devices speed up or slow down the movement of the strobes in response to sounds made by people around them, moving slowly when the environment is quiet, frantically when it is noisy. People around these pieces can control the apparent movement of the rods by making noises ranging from whispers to speech to laughter to clapping, or the units may simply reflect the sounds of people who are not trying to interact with the sculptures.

In the collaborations between Otto Piene and Paul Earls, the frequencies of Earls's electronic music guide the images of Piene's computer drawing program. The images are created by a laser which can project them in all sorts of environments, including projections into the sky, where their three dimensional quality takes on the character of constantly changing monumental sculpture. In work like this, what you see could only be created by computer and laser. The maximum so far attained in collaboration between media and artists is in dance performances such as Phosphones, which use the CORTLI system designed by computer sculptor James Seawright, electronic music composer Emmanuel Ghent, programer William Hemsath, and choreographer Mimi Garrard. This system presents complex interactions between music and lighting, which in turn interact with the movements of the dancers in Ms. Garrard's company. This is just a few steps away from a total art form in which everyone dances and the audience and the work are reintegrated. And it's not far from massive works in which thousands of people participate, and a final "product" is never achieved or desired.

The basis of the partnership between computers and the arts is a human partnership. How much it can grow through its interaction with the nonhuman may be a partial test of its value. But ultimately this new technology will be a test of our cooperative and conceptual capacities and of our imagination and courage.

[1995 postscript: some of the technical details in this essay seem almost quaint after a few years, but the main points haven't changed. Perhaps that's a comment in itself.]

First published in American Book Review, Vol.11, # 3, July-Aug. 1989.

Copyright © 1995 by Karl Young. Return to Light and Dust Poets.

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